Asking Important Questions About the Use of Neuroscience and Technology in Interrogations and Questioning

The axiomatic goal of national security is the protection of the population. Toward this end, knowledge of real and potential threats is crucial to both preventing events that place the population at risk, and to squelching events before they escalate into scenarios of large-scale harm. Intelligence is a vital part of any national security agenda, and accurate information is the key to successful intelligence. Since interrogation is often essential to acquiring accurate information, and in light of expressed difficulties in interrogating subjects in the Global War on Terror (GWOT), there is increasing interest – and concern about – developing and using neuroscience and neurotechnologies (neuroS/T) to enable more effective interrogation in domestic and international settings; both of which may present complex cross-cultural issues and problems.

Techniques and technologies that have been identified as having possible utility for obtaining information that could be important to intelligence efforts include:

1) a variety of neuropharmacologic agents, including substances that induce feeling of affiliation (such as the neurohormone, oxytocin), mood altering drugs (such as the anti-anxiety drugs and dopamine transport inhibitors) and  drugs that produce a state of elation or euphoria (such as some of the opiates, and amphetamines, such as methylenedioxymethamphetamine, MDMA…what is commonly referred to as ‘ecstasy’); and

2) neurotechnologic devices and approaches, such as certain types of neuroimaging, and forms of magnetic and\or electrical nerve and brain stimulation (such as TMS).

Emerging technologies have historically and predictably been used in military and national security programs, and inarguably neuroscience and its technologies represent cutting-edge developments that have viable potential in such security agenda. Therefore, dismissing the possible employment of neuroS/T, based upon either fear of misuse and/or ethical qualms, does not reflect historicity, and may be unrealistic.  But before we go any further down this road, let me state three important premises: First it’s likely that sooner or later (and I’d wager on sooner) neuroS/T will be used in interrogations. Second, neuroS/T, like any scientific approach and tool, has potential for misuse or frank harm, and so identifying the nervous system and brain as target sites through which to leverage information – including by the infliction of pain and suffering – is a reality that must be faced. Third, it’s probable that other individuals and/or groups are also thinking about these very same ideas, and these folks may not be friendly to the US and its allies.

From these premises, let me offer a three-fold stance: First, a realistic perspective on these possibilities, not least of which is acknowledgement of the actual capabilities and limitations of the neuroS/T used – and the ethico-legal issues generated by apt or inapt use, or blatant abuse – is necessary. Second, we need to avoid the so-called fallacy of two wrongs, and not ‘do something’ (or at least not do something cavalierly or without appropriate reflection and regard) just because “…everybody else might”, and from this, third, we do however need to be prepared for the contingencies and realties of such uses of neurotechnology, but must do so in ways that are also ethico-legally sound.

Working in our group, Rhiannon Bower is addressing these issues and problems, and has posed the following questions that are important to defining and shaping the conduct of neuroS/T research and use in these ways.

  • Is there some “sanctity of mind” that negates the use of such approaches, regardless of how suspect an individual may be?
  • Or, are there particular circumstances under which certain “advanced neuroscientific methods” may be employed to obtain information from individuals who may be aware of – or pose – significant danger to the populace?
  • Does the use of  neuroS/T incur greater or lesser risk and harms than other interrogation methods?
  • Are there limits to the ways that neuroS/T should be used in such situations, and if so, how should such criteria be developed and enforced?

Of course, there are claims that neuroscientific methods should not be employed in interrogation – or national security agenda at all – because of the potential for misuse, and/or the view that using neuroS/T in these ways would incur violations of inherent human rights that the US has vowed to protect.  We recognize and respect the validity of such claims, and in light of this Bower has envisioned three possible options:

  1. Abstaining from implementing neuroS/T in any/all national security agendas and situations.
  2. Utilizing neuroS/T in only specific situations/conditions that would dictate – and ethico-legally justify – the need for this level of intervention.
  3. Making (appropriate) neuroS/T approaches available and employable in all national security endeavors, including interrogations, in accordance with defined ethico-legal parameters.

When considering these options, it is important to bear in mind that the appointed goal of interrogation for US national defense is not to cause harm without purpose, but rather, to uphold and protect the rights of the greater population (namely the right to life). But, as history has shown, law enforcement and military authority can be misappropriated and abused, and these possibilities must be taken into account and mitigated.

Thus, we are focusing upon:

1)      Whether to base ethical decisions upon the spirit of the law, which might allow such uses of technology; or, if such approaches would be considered so morally problematic that it’d be preferable to ban the development and implementation of these techniques and technologies altogether?

2)      Whether guidance and governance should entail a neuroethics of military operations – or a military ethics applied to the use of neuroscience and neurotechnology?

3)      Whether some (extant or new) combination of both approaches might need to be addressed and articulated, and what such a set of ethico-legal parameters would obtain and entail.

These are deep and broad questions, and we’re working to flesh-out the trajectories and scenarios that each might foster, and from these possibilities develop answers that are meaningful to national security agenda, and the public at-large.

In the main, we advocate that neuroS/T be continued to be studied for its potential viability – specifically to decrease harm during interrogations deemed necessary in national security, intelligence, and defense operations.

But we advocate sensitivity to what we call “footfall effects”: namely, that it’s not a question of impeding the momentum or even the pace of forward progress (because that may be difficult, if not impossible, to do); rather it’s a question of where each forward step falls so as to tread wisely with appropriate lightness, and remain upright and balanced on one’s feet…both in the course of usual events, and if pushed or stricken.

Next week: Focus, objectives and proposed criteria for studying and using neuroS/T in interrogations and other national security settings

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